Liberal Arts (PG) 3.5 stars
Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney
DIRECTOR: JOSH RADNOR
REVIEW: LUCY GIBSON
You'll like this if you liked Up in the Air, Away We Go, Elizabethtown
Nostalgia is truly a powerful drug. It makes us wistful for the past and, in so doing, it often disables us from moving forward.
Such is the case in Josh Radnor's second feature Liberal Arts, a bittersweet romantic drama which sees the fledgling writer-director also star as a man at a crossroads in life.
Radnor is best known for playing the lovable Ted Mosby in the Emmy Award-winning TV comedy How I Met Your Mother.
Here he plays 30-something Jesse, an admissions counsellor living in New York who has been asked to return to his alma mater to attend a retirement party being held for his favourite literature professor (Richard Jenkins).
While visiting his old college he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student to whom he feels attracted to, despite the 16-year age gap.
The young beauty has signed up to a liberal arts degree and her passion for the subject - defined as subjects or skills that are considered "essential for a free person to take an active part in civic life" - is infectious.
But while Zibby's youthful enthusiasm is as intriguing as it is attractive to Jesse, he gets to see how life also has a habit of leaving people a little jaded when he spends "the least most romantic night of my life" with his brittle and unhappy former literature professor (Allison Janney).
"I would think spending time with all those poems would make you more optimistic and hopeful," Jesse says to her in an attempt to strike up a deep and meaningful post-coital conversation.
"Nonsense," is her response. "They were miserable men who were granted a few moments of transcendence and they had the foresight to grab pen and paper and write it down."
When he says it's the saddest night of his life, she responds with an even harsher truth: "Get used to it. My advice to you is this. Put some armour around that gooey little heart of yours."
Radnor's first film, Happythankyoumoreplease, received a lukewarm response from critics but here he's written an honest screenplay which taps into the psyche of three generations.
He has been compared to the likes of Cameron Crowe and indeed Liberal Arts has, at its heart, a similar sentimentality to films such as Elizabethtown.
Filmed in part on campus at Kenyon College in Ohio where Radnor studied, it's a film that's lovely to look at but it's the characters - all of whom seem to want to be elsewhere - who are the most intriguing to watch.
Radnor brings depth to the piece as Jesse, a man struggling to let go of the past and come to terms with the future while searching for the meaning of love.
His love affair with a girl 16 years his junior - which continues through the form of romantic letter writing when he returns home to New York - is hopeful yet doomed.
Olsen is particularly well-suited to the role of the classical music-loving sophomore who awakens in the introverted Jesse long-dormant feelings, the pair sharing a charming chemistry.
Adding further depth is Jenkins as Professor Peter Hoberg, a man who couldn't wait to leave teaching but is now looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses.
And Janney, always a delight to watch on screen, has just the right amount of dry wit to play the part of Professor Judith Fairfield, the cynical woman we all hope never to turn into.Liberal Arts is not a flawless film but its themes will strike a chord with most people, particularly those who know what it feels like to be confronted with reality after graduation.
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